Scotland must be wary of Israel’s twin attacking threat of Moanes Dabour and Eran Zahavi

James Forrest stole the show the last time Scotland played Israel, scoring a hat-trick in a 3-2 win. Picture: SNS
James Forrest stole the show the last time Scotland played Israel, scoring a hat-trick in a 3-2 win. Picture: SNS
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When the moment came, Scotland’s fate was in the lap of the gods. Or, to be more precise, in the hands of someone revered as a Greek footballing god.

At Uefa’s headquarters in Nyon, Angelos Charisteas was the man tasked with drawing out the plastic balls which determined the two hurdles Steve Clarke’s squad must now clear to claim a place in the Euro 2020 finals.

Charisteas is living proof that fairy tales can come true in the tournament, having scored the dramatic winning goal when Greece defied the odds to win Euro 2004 with victory over hosts Portugal in the final.

But after Charisteas pulled out the ball which declared that Scotland will be away from home against either Norway or Serbia in the Path C Euro 2020 play-off final, assuming they can overcome Israel at Hampden in the semi-final, the immediate reaction of the SFA delegation was rooted in reality.

The facial expressions of head coach Clarke, president Rod Petrie and chief executive Ian Maxwell did nothing to conceal the fact Scotland were hoping desperately for a Hampden double header next spring.

Instead, a daunting trip to either the Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo or the Red Star Stadium in Belgrade awaits the Scots on Tuesday 31 March, so long as they do not fail at home to Israel five days earlier.

Whatever immediate thoughts crossed his mind, Clarke was bullish and determinedly upbeat when he emerged to give his reaction to the media, insisting he did not regard the venue for the final as a setback.

“There’s no disappointment,” said Clarke. “When you are in a draw, you have to take what you get. It will be a difficult game, no matter who the opponents are. First and foremost, we have to get through the game against Israel. After that, the second game will take care of itself.”

Clarke’s primary focus has to be on Israel in a fixture where Scotland will be favourites but have no reason to even flirt with complacency.

The nations met in the inaugural Uefa Nations League last season when Scotland, under Clarke’s predecessor Alex McLeish, were abject in losing 2-1 in Haifa before exacting revenge with a tense 3-2 win at Hampden.

James Forrest scored a hat-trick as Scotland got the three points they needed to win their Nations League group and guarantee a place in the Euro 2020 play-offs. But they also needed a remarkable 88th-minute save from goalkeeper Allan McGregor to deny Tomar Hemed an equaliser for Israel.

Under Austrian coach Andreas Herzog, the Israelis subsequently struggled in their Euro 2020 Group G qualifying campaign, finishing fifth with just three wins – two of them against bottom placed Latvia – from their ten games.

Israel have a number of players familiar to Scottish fans, including current Celtic duo Hatem Elhamed and Nir Bitton, former Celtic midfielder Beram Kayal of Charlton and Hibs goalkeeper Ofir Marciano.

Their biggest threat to Scotland may come from striking duo Moanes Dabour, currently playing for Sevilla, and veteran Eran Zahavi of Chinese club Guangzhou who scored at Hampden last year and was joint second-top scorer in Euro 2020 qualifying on 11 goals alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.

But home advantage should be a telling factor for the Scots as Israel’s form on the road is poor, losing 13 of their last 18 away matches.

“The good thing about playing Israel is that, although I wasn’t the manger at the time, a lot of the players played against Israel in the Nations League and will have a good understanding of what to expect,” added Clarke.

“They were two close games [in the Nations League]. This game will come with its own special level of pressure and it’s something we have to embrace.

“I’m sure we’ll go in as favourites because we have home advantage. The crowd at Hampden can be a big plus for us, I’m sure the stadium will be full and it’s up to us to perform. The Tartan Army will be on the march. It’s a great stadium when it’s full. If we can start well, we’ll get them right behind us.”

If Scotland do reach the final, they will need to produce one of their finest ever away performances to succeed against either Norway or Serbia. Both teams had strong third-place finishes in their Euro 2020 qualifying groups, the Norwegians losing just once behind Spain and Sweden, while Serbia were just three points adrift of reigning European champions Portugal.

Under veteran Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, Norway are bidding to reach their first major finals since 
Euro 2000 with a squad which includes Celtic defender Kristoffer Ajer and is spearheaded by Bournemouth striker Joshua King.

Serbia, who were knocked out at the group stage of the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, boast a squad full of experience and talent. Skippered by former Manchester City defender Aleksandar Kolarov, they carry potent attacking menace in the shape of Ajax midfielder
Dusan Tadic and Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Clarke is confident Scotland will reach the final and give themselves an opportunity to ensure Glasgow does not become a host city without a home team at next summer’s finals.

“We want to be active participants at Euro 2020, not just hosts, and we will give our all in what I believe will be two games in March,” said Clarke.

“The Scotland fans always travel in their numbers and I hope they will do so once again if we were to reach the final, but for the moment our focus will be on the semi-final first and foremost.

“We have three wins in a row at the end of our Euro 2020 qualifying group and the benefit of momentum. We need to channel that positivity and focus on the many attributes we have. To have more than 50,000 people cheering us on at Hampden for the semi-final and the whole country watching at home is something that really excites me and will only serve as further inspiration to the players.

“We are a host nation and don’t want to be standing on the sidelines watching someone else enjoying themselves in Glasgow.”